ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – Anyone worried about being diagnosed with the “big C” is far from alone. Of all the potential illnesses people find the
most frightening, cancer is right at the top.
While common forms of the disease like breast, lung, colon or prostate cancer usually come to mind – individuals also should be aware of other forms of this potentially deadly illness and how to reduce the risks.
In recognition of April’s National Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, Maj. Christa Hirleman, a public health dentist assigned to the Army Public Health Center, wants Army community members to consider this fact:
Oral cancer kills roughly one person every hour of every day.
The Oral Cancer Foundation highlights some little known facts on their website, oralcancerfoundation.org. Oral (or oropharyngeal) cancer is not as common as other types of the disease, but it can be very dangerous because it is usually not discovered until it has already spread from the mouth or throat to other parts of the body, such as lymph nodes in the neck. Treatment at this stage can result in severe complications including pain, infection, bone loss, muscle damage, difficulty speaking and swallowing, and disfigurement.
Oral cancers often occur on the tongue, tonsils, oropharynx (area below the soft palate above the epiglottis), gums, floor of the mouth and lips, according to Hirleman.
“While there is no way to completely prevent oral cancer, scientific evidence indicates there are things you can do to lower your risk,” she said.
Tobacco products, alcohol consumption and infection with Human Papillomavirus are primary risk factors of oral cancer. Hirleman pointed out that those who use tobacco products and drink have a much greater risk of developing oral cancer. Data indicates cigarette use can increase your risk of cancer by 15 times. Smokeless forms such as chewing tobacco and snuff are high risks as well.
Though the data is preliminary, Dr. Mark Williams, an APHC biologist specialized in toxicology studies, noted that emerging research suggests an association between oral cancer risk and the use of newer tobacco products including vaping, e-cigarettes, and other electronic nicotine delivery systems.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Though it can go away on its own, and in most cases the infection does not cause any health problems, HPV is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancers (those affecting the back of the throat, tonsils and base of the tongue).
Hirleman also noted that additional factors may increase the risk of oral cancer such as unhealthy eating habits, poor oral hygiene, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, acid reflux, and a family history of oral cancer.
While evidence shows men are twice as likely as women to be diagnosed with oral cancer, Hirleman clarified that this difference may be related to tobacco and alcohol use seen more commonly among males.
Finally, though oral cancer is typically diagnosed in older patients (such as those in their 60s), the high-risk behaviors often begin at a young age.
“This is why it’s important for Soldiers to reduce their risks at a young age,” Hirleman emphasized.
So how can individuals lower their risk of getting oral cancer?
Hirleman laid out these basic steps:
• Stop the use of ALL tobacco products, including electronic nicotine delivery systems
• Reduce or eliminate alcohol use
• Practice safe sex and talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine
• Eat a healthy diet and practice good oral hygiene
• Visit the dentist regularly
“Dentists look for signs of oral cancer during dental examinations, but many people only see the dentist once per year, sometimes even less often,” Hirleman said. “That is why it is very important to check yourself for signs and symptoms of oral cancer.”
Some signs and symptoms of oral cancer include:
• Ulcers or sores in the mouth that do not heal (very common symptom)
• Red or white patches on the gums, tongue, tonsils, or mouth lining
• Lumps of no obvious cause on the lip, mouth, or throat
• Thickening of the cheek
• Unusual bleeding from the mouth or throat
• Long-lasting sore throat; feeling of something stuck in throat
• Pain in the mouth that does not go away
• Numbness of the tongue or other areas of the mouth
• Ear pain
• Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaw or tongue
• Trouble speaking or breathing
• Change in voice (such as hoarseness)
• Unexplained sudden loosening of teeth
“Oral cancer can grow very quickly,” Hirleman said. “If you think you have any signs or symptoms of oral cancer, it is important that you visit your dentist or doctor right away – don’t wait for your regular check-up.”